15 May 2017

Nioh(仁王) | Resurrection or smoldering ash?

This article on Nioh is a rewrite from the one posted on 20-02-2017. It has been revised as new gameplay elements rose to the surface and the game was patched. That and the original article was, admittedly, rushed to meet the hype of the game. This review is up to date with version 1.6 and includes the free DLC-missions from that patch.

Nioh (仁王",  "仁" meaning "benevolent" and "王” standing for "king") is a story of rebirth, inside and out. Based on unfinished script of famed writer Akira Kurosawa the game has been in production since 2004. While originally scheduled for release around 2008 the game struggled with multiple studios and engines before ending up in the hands of a then struggling developer, Team Ninja; who came from strong rich action game roots, having laid out the template with Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox back in 2004. Yet after the departure of key staff members the studio hadn’t been fighting for glory or honor, but for survival. Dead or Alive 5 and its subsequent reiterations had been successful but the foray of Ninja Gaiden unto the new generations had been met with lukewarm reception. Ninja Gaiden 3 tried to be something new and failed and its re release Razor’s Edge was a rushed redemption building on what had been done before. Just as Nioh, Team Ninja needed a second chance. Like the eastern spiritual animal Suzaku, the vermilion bird of the south, they needed resurrection. With these stakes, Team Ninja decided to invest heavily in player feedback. Nearly a year prior to release the game had multiple open betas paired with questionnaires for feedback. Armed with the data the game was tweaked and adjusted constantly, finally seeing release on February 2017. But did Nioh grow out of the ashes as a new bird, flocking among the greats of the genre?

Short ink-styled cutscenes give insights in a character's past and motivations.

As a foundation the script from Akira remains as a basis, focusing on real life events with a spiritual twist. The game focuses on the historical figure William Adams, better known as Miura Anjin (三浦按) due to his hard to pronounce name. In the game he’s aided by spiritual guardians with whom he has a deep connection, one of which granting him his immortality. Surrounding Anjin are real life events and characters, with the game taking place Sengoku period of Japan focusing on Ieyasu’s rise to power after the death of warlord Oda Nobunaga. If those names mean nothing to you, fear not for the in-game character profiles offer a rich history and insight into these people. Though it sometimes blurs the lines between what was real and what wasn’t, those interested can always look up the information in a real book. Some of the stories - like that of Yasuke the Obsidian Samurai - are genuinely interesting.

Anjin's fighting-stances, which you can use with each weapon.
But the story isn’t the focus, this is a Team Ninja game after all. Once Anjin's boat docks along Japan's shores the combat opens up, leveling-mechanics and all. The main core of the combat revolves around fighting in three stances: high, middle and low. All stances change movement and abilities. A high stance’s dodge will be a roll with a large amount of invulnerability frames attached to it and its attacks slow and damaging. At the same time the low stance’s dodge is more of a sidestep for quick re-positioning and its moves quick but lacking in punch. It’s a mechanic that allows for easy access to a lot of moves and variations in defensive and offensive options without becoming too convoluted, especially when compared to the insane complexity of Devil May Cry 4’s style-switching mechanic.
All actions taken cost Ki, a type of stamina which recharges when you are idle. When fully drained you are unable to perform most actions and are open to a finishers. All enemies and bosses also have Ki, with the same benefits and rules to them. This puts enemies on equal footing, allowing you to manipulate their Ki output and regeneration by putting out pressure of your own. This results in the game being about meter management, but not just for yourself. You’re constantly making offensive and defensive decisions based on your own Ki in relation to that of your foe. If you keep up the pressure you might break their Ki, but you might run out of your own while doing so, a strong mechanic. It is then saddening to notice that later bosses slowly start to edge away from this, gaining either infinite Ki or the ability to attack and dodge without Ki; breaking the game’s rules.
Ki-pulse in action.
To balance this Anjin can execute a Ki-pulse by tapping the R1 button at the end of a combo, regenerating some Ki back to him while also canceling his current animation. This is later extended by canceling Ki-pulses into other stances for offensive bonuses or pulsing into weapon switches or even quick strikes, adding nuance upon nuance to the combat.

Surrounding these nuances are a lot of variables. There are five different weapon types: the Katana(刀), Dual Katana(二天一), Kusarigama(鎖鎌), Axe/Hammer(斤) and Lance/Spear(戣); two types of special abilities: Ninjutsu(忍術) and Magic(魔術); a crafting system for armor and weapons; guardian spirits - including the aforementioned Suzaku - each with their own modifiers; the stats of Anjin himself; clans to join for stat bonuses and many more. These elements combined define what type of character you’ll play throughout the experience though one can reset their points whenever they wish to redefine the way they play. It’s possible to be a slow tank without a viable dodge but the ability to block anything short of a cruise-missile, a fragile mage wielding an huge hammer or to be an agile ronin with just his sword and wits to save him. The choice is yours!

One of nearly 6 screens needed to show all the stats and modifiers.
But with these vast amounts of variables the developers have a hard time predicting what tools the player has at his disposal when designing an encounter; as they can never count on the player on having one certain ability. There are numerous ways to balance around this though as Team Ninja themselves have shown in their own Ninja Gaiden Black; like by giving the player certain moves predetermined at a certain point in the game. But in Nioh they chose to ignore this, rather balancing the game around an un-upgraded Anjin.

If played normally without the use of abilities or magic the game will offer a solid challenge. Yet once the player dives into the multitude of options available to him and how they might combine together the game’s enemies simply do not keep up. A once mighty boss might fall in seconds to a combination of spells and abilities and other enemies that once made you jump in fright will now just make you sigh. The end result is that the game is as easy as you make it and as hard as you wish. It is clear that Team Ninja isn’t sure what should define the win of a fight in Nioh, the skill of the player or the level of his gear and character. Yet it is also this extremity that offers a lot of experimentation, Nioh’s current greatest strength. To find that one overpowered setup, craft the gear and buy the spells surrounding it and to then see it in action can be a very entertaining experience.


You'll rarely see this much sun sadly.
Should you die though, revenge will be swift. While the game was originally going to be open world they quickly decided against it and use a mission-based structure so that they could deliver quick load times after falling in battle; on which they delivered as loading times sometimes reach the sub-two second marker. Once loaded the experience mostly takes place in areas across Japan during nighttime. The design in place allows for levels to be replayed but they also offer remixes like playing the mission in reverse while changing enemy layouts to keep things fresh. Missions usually have one path to follow, promoting a more linear design with numerous shortcuts to reduce the time running back should one die. It isn’t until the last region that the levels become more maze-like in their design offering multiple routes to the same endpoint but with different loot, collectibles and challenges along the way.


With all the options mentioned above, it can be a bit difficult to get a grasp of what is possible in Nioh. At its very core the game’s combat revolves around three basic concepts: Ki-management, stance-management and positioning. You do this against many a foe, with the game sporting around twenty different enemy types, including variations of existing ones. Not all enemies are for offense either, with some fulfilling a support role. There are summoners which add foes to the battle ground or ninjas that try to stun and harass you while the bigger enemies deal the heavy damage. As a balance the heavier enemies have specific weakness to drain their larger Ki-pool faster, most of which can be found in their design. Larger Yokai can be drained of their Ki instantly by smashing their horns and a Cyclops can be stunned by hitting its eye, rewarding precision in combat. In a strange twist the larger foes are immune to a lot of your later combat options, parries will never work against Yokai for instance. While it can be expected that parrying a fist larger than your body is not a good idea, reworked animations depending on the enemy could have been an option. The parry called Leaf Glide won’t work on skeletons as that animation was never fixed to work with them. What remains now is a list of abilities of which only half is usable in the end-game which is filled with Yokai and not humanoid enemies. On the flip side, some abilities trivialize humanoid bosses like parries and sweeping attack, reducing the challenge immensely. The balance is lacking once again.
Even worse around 3/4 of all the game’s enemies appear in the first few chapters. Due to this later-on in the experience Anjin will outgrow his foes in both strength, speed but also player-skill. Foes that were deliberately slow with predictable attacks will fall before a trained player who’s darting left and right while switching stances and Ki-pulsing constantly. The game desperately misses an enemy type that challenges the player and is able to keep up with him, at least in terms of speed. Player Revenants, former players who have died and can be summoned to fight against, are the only exception to this as they operate at the same speed as Anjin and share his core mechanics. Sadly they can only appear in numbers of two at the very maximum, having that ever important challenge lie just behind the horizon and out of reach.

This is a strong visualization that serves as the conclusion to what Nioh is: a resurrected bird flying to the sky to be with its brothers like Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha, Devil May Cry and even their far away cousin Dark Souls. But as it stands it’s flying too low, not offering enough challenge in difficulty or balance in mechanics to offer an as rewarding experience as they have in the past. But it definitely can, as recent patch 1.06 has already demonstrated. Adding a few new missions for free where Team Ninja experimented with new enemy compositions they didn’t dare use in the main game, like the pairing of certain bosses. Nioh needs to expand on this more but also find its identity. Does it want players to win based on stats or player skill?

The answer will allow them to fly higher and soar through the skies with its brothers as a benevolent king.
Team Ninja reborn as the nioh of action games.




opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

For me Nioh can be seen as the last stand of the action hack&slash genre. With the original team behind Ninja Gaiden having dissolved to work in other genres, Tomunobu focusing on online combat, Platinum Games becoming more a ‘combat studio for hire’ with games like Nier and Transformers - both excellent games but lacking the focus the studio has had before with titles like Bayonneta - and Team Ninja’s latest attempts at the genre falling short; Nioh is the genre holding on. And I believe this is where it’s mistaken identity hails from. They, as is confirmed in interviews, looked at current trends in gaming such as Dark Souls and Diablo 3 for inspiration. But the systems at play in those games are at odds with what Team Ninja has developed in the past, where loot and stats had no meaning when compared to the skill of the player. This is evident in the later patches where stats became a less important factor, probably a result of Team Ninja watching videos online of players mashing their way to victory; an affront to their legacy. I am curious to see how this will end up and how the game will look compared to its original a year after release.
As it stands I find the game heavily enjoyable though. For me the choice between Nioh and Nier was a difficult one as I only had enough money to purchase one of them, but I eventually choose Nioh for its ability to be played in co-op with old Ninja Gaiden friends - a decision I haven’t regretted since.


postscript notes

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  • This review was originally posted with rushed content, as I hadn’t delved into the mechanics proper. I originally thought stance switching wasn’t promoted for instance, while it in fact is.
  • As a result I found myself constantly sighing at my old review, which I found to be poorly written. If one wishes they can compare both reviews, I personally prefer this one as it's much more structured and directed.
  • Strangely enough the spirit Suzaku, who plays a role in this review, is misused. The spirit Fenghuang is originally the phoenix equivalent and often confused with Suzaku. For Nioh Team Ninja opted to use Suzaku’s design with the fiery origin of Fenghuang.
  • A nice twist of Nioh is the usage of Oda Nobunaga, who is often used as a villain. Instead in Nioh he is shown as an honorable - but cruel - man and is not the focus of the story, which is set after his passing.
  • The ninja enemies in this game are quite unique, always being visible but hiding in plain sight. Well done Team Ninja.
  • I deliberately omitted mentioning Dark Souls in this review as I wanted to analyse the game separate from its inspirations. A follow up on the relation between the two is coming in the future.


sources
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  • Yasuda, Fumihiko (March 2, 2017). “Lessons learned from development”. Blog.us.playstation.com.
  • Games played for this article: Nioh (PS4), Ninja Gaiden 3 (PS3), Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge (WiiU), Dark Souls (PS3), Nioh Alpha, Beta & Last Chance Trial (PS4).


Release-date:  february 2017 |  Director: Fumihiko Yasuda & Yosuke Hayashi | Producer: Hisashi Koinuma| Platform: PS4

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